The Mets traded outfielder Lastings Milledge to the Washington Nationals Friday, getting catcher Brian Schneider and outfielder Ryan Church in return.
In fact, this is the worst move by the franchise since Scott Kazmir was dealt for Victor Zambrano at the trade deadline in 2004. Worse yet, the Mets will get to see their mistake often, with Washington, an in-division opponent, facing New York 19 times a year.
Start with the basics of the trade. In Milledge, the Mets had a plus defensive center fielder who learned right and left field simultaneously in 2007, and still managed an OPS of .787. The mark is above league average as a 22-year-old; that almost always portends even better seasons ahead.
Of course, Washington can put Mileldge in center field, where his above-average offense will make him even more valuable.
In return for the 22-year-old Milledge, the Mets received the 29-year-old Church, who has hit very well in a part-time role for Washington over the past three seasons, and is a good defensive player.
“We’re very happy to have him as our guy,” Mets General Manager Omar Minaya said during a Friday conference call. “We’re looking at Ryan Church as being our outfielder. Milledge is an outfielder, but because of his age, you don’t know the upside. But we’re thinking of Church as our everyday guy.”
As Minaya implied, with Church, you do know the upside—this is as good as it gets. Milledge is a similar player to Church, only he is still years from his peak. Church is, by any measure, on the tail end of his peak or leaving it altogether.
On top of that, Church, with more service time, is arbitration-eligible after 2008, meaning he’ll be more expensive by far than Milledge, who isn’t arbitration eligible until at least 2009.
In Schneider, who is due nearly $10 million over the next two years, the Mets have also acquired a catcher who is a bit better than Ramon Castro defensively, but miles worse offensively.
Schneider’s slugging percentages the last two seasons, .326 and .336, average out to .331—which was Ramon Castro’s on base percentage last year. Castro’s slugging? .556.
Put it another way. Schneider threw out roughly 30 percent of runners last season, Castro 10 percent. Even though this appears to be a fluke (Castro was at 34% in 2006, for instance), over a full season that ends up being about 15 extra bases for the opposition.
Now compare that to the offensive difference. In 2007 Schneider had 137 total bases, Castro 80. But Schneider had three times as many at bats! Give Castro Schneider’s playing time, assuming the same production, and Castro was roughly twice the offensive player Schneider was, a difference of well over 100 total bases. If Castro didn’t thrown out a runner all year in 2008, he’d still have been about 35% more valuable behind the plate than Brian Schneider.
“Brian Schneider’s going to be our everyday catcher,” Minaya said. “We’ll have as good a combination as you have in baseball.”
As a bonus, the Mets now have three catchers on the roster, and will almost certainly have to release Johnny Estrada, who offered a switch-hitting option to pair with Castro without a commitment beyond 2008. When asked by MLB.com’s Marty Noble why any team would trade the Mets anything for Estrada, now that it was clear they had no place to put him on the roster, Minaya replied, “I don’t know how to answer that question.”
In the Mets’ defense, the defense is much improved with Schneider behind the plate as opposed to Paul Lo Duca, and Ryan Church is no Victor Zambrano—not only is he a plus power hitter, he is above average defensively, and should contribute greatly to the 2008 Mets.
But for years to come, a visit from Washington will remind Mets fans of what they nearly had, and lost. But Minaya said that while he takes fan reaction into account when making moves, he ultimately has to make the moves he thinks are right for the ball club. He cited the Kris Benson deal as a precedent, though that was the reverse of this trade—the Mets dealt a veteran in Benson and received a young player in John Maine in return.
“I’m not worried at all,” Minaya said. “You’ve got to make decisions. Sometimes you make good trades, sometimes you make bad trades… I’m not worried at all. You just try not to think about those trades.”
Mets fans and Minaya will be reminded, however, 19 times a year.